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Los Angeles Times

Anger In Puerto Rico Over Death Penalty Case; The Federal Murder Trial Of Reputed Gang Leaders Becomes A New Rallying Point For Demanding A Change In Island's Status

By John-Thor Dahlburg

June 9, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - It was a kidnap-ransom plot that went bloodily awry. And with its two alleged ringleaders in custody here and potentially facing the death penalty, it is quickly becoming the newest point of friction between Puerto Rico and the United States.

The last person sentenced to die on this Caribbean island was a farm worker named Pascual Ramos, who beheaded his boss with a machete; he was hanged in 1927 for his crime.

Two years later, Puerto Rico's legislature -- like those throughout much of Latin America -- outlawed the death penalty. The 1952 Constitution, which defined Puerto Rico's status as a self-governing commonwealth associated with the United States, reiterated the unconditional ban on capital punishment.

But now, because of a legal interpretation that has them being tried before a federal jury, two reputed Puerto Rican gang leaders could be sentenced to death by lethal injection.

The situation has given rise to a grass-roots protest movement and brought objections from some islanders that the United States is behaving like a semicolonial ruler.

"We don't believe in capital punishment, and they are trying to impose it on us," said Arturo Luis Davila Toro, president of the Puerto Rican Bar Assn.

According to U.S. authorities, Hector Oscar Acosta "Gordo" Martinez, Joel Rivera Alejandro and a number of confederates kidnapped a minimart owner named Jorge Hernandez Diaz at gunpoint on the night of Feb. 11, 1998, from a city southeast of San Juan. They demanded a ransom of $1 million and warned the family not to contact authorities.

When the abductors learned the police were investigating Diaz's abduction, the grocer was shot and dismembered with an ax, his body parts placed in trash bags and dumped along a road, authorities said. The two alleged ringleaders, who were arrested and are being held in a federal detention center near San Juan, were indicted under a 1994 law passed by Congress to extend a possible capital sentence to a wider number of crimes.

"You're talking about brutal defendants who murdered and beheaded this businessman," U.S. Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. "Obviously, this is a capital case. And if the jury convicts and decides on that type of punishment, it will be carried out accordingly."

Jury selection for the trial, to be held in U.S. District Court in San Juan, began last week. If jurors find the defendants guilty and vote for capital punishment, the sentences would be carried out at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. -- where two years ago this month, Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh was fed a lethal stream of drugs through a needle inserted in his right leg.

But some people in Puerto Rico, who are questioning whether the defendants belong in federal court at all, want the trial to become another rallying point for demanding a change in the island's status -- just like the successful struggle to shut down the U.S. Navy's bombing range at Vieques island. Following a four-year campaign that landed more than 1,200 protesters behind bars, the Navy last month abandoned the lands it had held since World War II.

"Vieques was a tremendous experience for our country and proved -- not only in Puerto Rico, to our own people, but internationally -- the power of civil society, [that] without using violence ... there can be change," said Juan Pablo De Leon, a professor of social sciences at Sacred Heart University here.

As president of a citizens' committee opposing capital punishment, De Leon is planning to take the dispute over the San Juan trial before the United Nations. He also hopes the popular backlash will become so great that Puerto Rico's elected leaders will lobby Congress to exempt the island from the 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act.

"Behind this case is the reality of the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States," he said.

The dispute highlights one of the contradictions of the island's hybrid juridical status, a byproduct of the Spanish-American War. The nearly 4 million people who live in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens, but they have no voting representation in Congress and cannot cast ballots in presidential elections. So although they have no voice in the making of American laws, they are subject to most of them.

"In all these death penalty statutes that have been passed and are being applied, Puerto Ricans never had any say-so," said Rafael Castro Lang, one of the attorneys representing Alejandro. The San Juan defense attorney maintained that the justification for seeking a federal indictment against his client -- including the fact the kidnap victim owned a grocery store and was therefore engaged in "interstate commerce" -- is contrived.

"This is a typical murder case [that] can and should have been tried by the local courts," he said.

The trial, being held before Chief U.S. District Judge Hector Laffitte, has become a political grab bag for advocates of continued commonwealth status and those who dream of Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state.

Puerto Rico's top elected official, Gov. Sila M. Calderon, a proponent of the commonwealth, said the murder case demonstrates there must be further reforms in the U.S.-Puerto Rican relationship to end the application of federal laws "that infringe on our culture, our own laws and our customs." Calderon has refused to give her views about the upcoming trial but has said she is an unconditional opponent of the death penalty, which she termed "immoral."

Kenneth McClintock, a member of the opposition New Progressive Party and a three-term island senator, is also a foe of capital punishment. But he views the trial as yet another reason to press for statehood.

"We're part of the U.S., and all federal laws apply to Puerto Rico," McClintock said. "You can't be accepting Pell grants with one hand and opposing the application of federal laws you don't like with the other. It all comes in a package. If people like me don't like the death penalty, we need to work for statehood, get two senators and six representatives in the Congress and vote for the repeal of the death penalty law."

For advocates of Puerto Rican independence, who garnered 5% of the vote in the most recent elections, the trial will be yet another argument for severing all legal and political ties with the United States.

With polls showing most people on this predominantly Roman Catholic island firmly opposed to the death penalty, jury selection is expected to take two to three weeks -- with each of the 159 potential panelists being questioned, one by one, in the judge's conference room with lawyers for the government and the defense present. Laffitte already has rejected a petition to bar testimony from the main prosecution witness because, defense attorneys claim, he is a drug addict and gave information to the police under duress.

Anabelle Rodriguez, the commonwealth's secretary for justice, said U.S. government officials still haven't explained to her why they are seeking the death penalty against the two defendants.

"When you have a dual judicial system, like we do in Puerto Rico, these things happen," Rodriguez said. "This is one of the areas where, in the future, we may seek an accommodation so these things can't happen again. It's very important Puerto Ricans see their Constitution respected."

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